Genesis of the First Self-Winding Watch

This article, written by Mikhail, is devoted to the history of the first mass-produced self-winding mechanical watches.

Disclaimer 1. This work is a compilation of several online sources devoted to the history of the first mass-produced self-winding wristwatches.

Disclaimer 2. Some photos, especially those of historical models, are taken from online sources. The sources are specified where possible or simply stated “photos from the internet”. The rest of the photos are mine.

Perrelet and Breguet

The history of automatic winding as a feature of watch movements began in the 18th century. At that time, all wearable watches were pocket-sized and mainsprings of manual winding watches could be made massive enough to keep the movement running for several days. Despite this, the idea of not winding the watches at all seemed to be very appealing, at least among watchmakers.

Attempts to make watches that wind automatically from the movement of its owner date back to the second half of the 18th century. The one who made the most success at it was Abraham-Louis Perrelet, a watchmaker from Neuchâtel, Switzerland. It is to him that the current historiography attributes the invention and manufacture of the first batches of self-winding watches back to 1777. In that year, the term “self-winding watch” was born.

Photo from Richard Watkins’ book “The Origins Of Self-Winding Watches 1773-1779”:

Perrelet self-winding watch

That same year, Abraham-Louis Breguet was also experimenting with self-winding movements; however, this invention turned out to be too complicated and expensive. Only in 1779, when Perrelet watches caught his eye, he was able to create a viable version of automatic winding, “in the image and likeness” of Perrelet watches — but with some improvements. Breguet produced self-winding movements until 1810, all based on this improved Perrelet design.

At the same time, several other watchmakers were also experimenting with automatic winding.

The whole history of self-winding pocket watches is not the subject of this article; I just want to determine the exact moment when this function appeared in everyday life.

The other thing that should be noted is that self-winding was not a very popular complication in pocket watches.

Harwood, bumper mechanism

Some 150 years later after the invention of the first self-winding pocket watch, the Swiss watchmaking company FORTIS introduced the first wristwatch with a self-winding mechanism named Harwood at the 1926 Basel fair.

However, actually the history started a bit earlier, in 1923 in England. At this time an English watchmaker John Harwood decided to design a watch that was supposed to resist water and dust. In 1923 John Harwood was a watchmaker who still did not produce watch movements. He was a repairman. He knew pretty well that main reasons that usually took watches out of order were (and still are) dust, water, dirt and corrosion. Harwood’s goal was to create a watch that would be free from all of this.

If you disassemble pre-owned watches, you can easily see that dirt and water usually get inside the watch through the winding stem shaft. And this was the vulnerability John Harwood succeeded at eliminating. And the automatic winding feature made this possible.

In the photo below – the first wristwatch with automatic winding that came into mass production, the invention of John Harwood.

First Harwood self-winding watch

The watch is small, only 29mm in diameter. A women’s watch by modern standards.

The first thing that catches your eye when you see the watch is the lack of a crown. The logic here is simple. The watch is self-winding, so you do not need to wind it manually. And the hands are set by rotating the bezel. The bezel has two positions, displayed using the indicator window located at the 6 o’clock position. If the indicator is red, the bezel is in the neutral position and the watch is in a normal working state.

Harwood watch - changing time

By turning the bezel in any direction, we put the watch into time setting mode. The indicator turns white and further rotation of the bezel in the selected direction moves the hands. To put the bezel back to the neutral position you just need to turn it a little in the opposite direction, and the indicator will switch back to red. The time setting algorithm is very clear and simple.

Thus, eliminating the winding shaft and crown, Harwood automatically got rid of the dreaded hole in the watch case. The goal was achieved!

Let’s move on to the movement.

Harwood watch movement

Harwood used the idea of so-called bumper (or hammer) automatic winding in his watches.

The rotor (1) rotates around a central axis (2). The rotor does not make a full turn because its bumpers (3) are touching the limiter (4). The automatic winding feature itself is located under the bridge (5) next to the limiter. Automatic winding is one-way, i.e. the watch is wound only when the rotor moves clockwise. The reverse is idle. The mechanism of protection against over-winding (6) works via friction and is located around the axis of rotation of the rotor (2).

The rotation angle of the rotor is about 180 degrees. The power reserve of the movement was enough for 12 hours of continuous running. In my watch, due to time and wear, the power reserve is 6-8 hours.

Bumper-type automatic winding movements are characterized by intense strokes, which are transmitted to the hand of their owner during movement. Since the rotor is quite heavy, when the limiter meets the bumper, a rather weighty “boom” is heard, giving into the owner’s hand. Hence the second name of this mechanism is “hammer”.

John Harwood designed his automatic movement and the layout of his watch in 1923. The same year, he applied for a patent for this mechanism in England. In 1924, he did the same in Switzerland. Harwood managed to interest Anton Schild S.A. (movements manufacturer) and FORTIS (watch company) in his invention. Three years later, in 1926, the first self-winding wristwatch called Harwood was shown by FORTIS at the fair in Basel.

Harwood watches, by the way, were positioned as prestigious at that time, and were rather expensively finished. Even the most modest brass cases were beautifully carved.

Harwood watch - side

Harwood watches were in mass production from 1928 until 1931. In total, about 30,000 (or 50,000, according to some sources) pieces were produced. John’s company, the Harwood Self Winding Watch Co. Inc., was involved in sales and marketing of these watches in England. The name of the company can be read on the mechanism, and if you look closely, inside the back cover:

Harwood watch caseback

Harwood Self Winding Watch Co. Inc. entered bankruptcy in 1931 during the Great Depression. Harwood did not have enough funds to extend the patents, and many other manufacturers such as Omega and Jaeger LeCoultre began to replicate bumper mechanisms in their watches. Bumper watches were produced until the 1960s.

FORTIS Autorist, failed experiment

It is believed that John Harwood also invented and launched another, much less known automatic winding movement. This movement was used in the Autorist watch. Here it is not the rotating weight inside the watch that is used for winding the mainspring, but rather the movement of the wearer’s wrist. Autorist movements were also produced by Anton Schild S.A. and the watch itself was produced by FORTIS.

Here’s what an Autorist watch looks like:

Fortis Autorist

As you can see, it seems to be nothing special from the outside of the watch. A rectangular case, quite common these years, a regular functionality, and a regular crown. The watch is small, measuring 23x32mm with the strap mounts excluded. The interesting thing is that the case is hinged and opens to the side:

Fortis Autorist - open

That is just the outside of the watch, however. Everything inside is much more fascinating.

Fortis Autorist side

Fortis Autorist empty case

The photo shows that the lug of the watch is made on a hinge (1). The movement of the wrist through the strap moves the hinge and the energy is transmitted to the lever (2), which engages with the drive lever (3) in the movement.

The following picture shows the two extreme positions of the hinge (1): on the left in the maximum folded state, i.e. the moving lug is brought as close to the case as possible, and to the right, it is maximally set apart from the case. Interlocked levers (2) and (3) are visible in the groove:

Fortis Autorist hinge

Here’s what the mechanism looks like from the inside:

Fortis Autorist movement

From the drive lever (3) through the system of levers (4) and the ratchet (5), the reciprocating movements are converted into the rotation of the winding drive (6). Automatic winding is also unidirectional. The protection against over-winding is located in the centre of the “rosette” of the automatic winding (6), and also functions through friction.

The crown is used only to set the hands.

There’s much less available information about FORTIS Autorist compared to Harwood watches. These watches were produced between approximately 1930 and 1931 in very small quantities, not more than five to six thousand overall. The movement turned out to be too complex and unreliable, and continuing production would have been impractical. I do not know other implementations of such a drive.

At the beginning of the chapter, I wrote that John Harwood “is considered to be an inventor of the Autorist watch”. Indeed, the story on the Harwood Watch website says so. And the FORTIS company book says the same. And almost all the sellers of these watches on the internet write that Harwood was the inventor.

This, however, is incorrect. According to French Patent Application No. FR1963976X, filed July 19, 1930, the inventor of Autorist watches was Frenchman Jacques Farret.

The venerable DuBois et fils is also proud to have launched the Autorist watch in 1931. But upon closer inspection it turns out that their Autorist differs from the Autorist from FORTIS only by the inscription on the dial. Nowadays we call this “badge-engineering”.

By the way, it is quite clear that Autorist is not the work of John Harwood directly from Autorist design. A crown with a shaft is present, and there is no sign of any potential impermeability.

Harwood and Rolex: Who Was the First?

“Wait! What about Rolex,” you may ask. After all, you may have heard that it was Rolex that first invented automatic winding in watches.

The truth is slightly more complicated.

In 1931, Rolex launched its first self-winding wristwatch with great fanfare. Let me remind you that by that time, Harwood had already manufactured at least 30,000 of his own self-winding watches.

So, being at least second in this competition, Rolex was nevertheless the first. In the Rolex movement (calibre Rolex 620), for the first time ever for wristwatch movements, a rotor was presented that rotated all 360 degrees, without bumpers and limiters.

Here is a photo of the Rolex 620 from the official Rolex website:

Rolex 620 movement

The automatic winding rotor, freely rotating around the central axis, is clearly visible.

It is said that the first self-winding Rolex prototypes were assembled using Harwood movements. It is unclear whether this is true or not. But indisputable is the fact that the first Rolex 620 caliber was made under the strong influence of Harwood’s work.

With the launch of the Rolex 620 caliber in Oyster Perpetual watch, Rolex informed the world that it was they who were the first to invent self-winding watches! And for a long time everyone was fed this tale. It went something like, “First Perrelet, and then Rolex, immediately after”. Here you can see the original advertising found on the internet:

Rolex Perrelet article

However after a few years Rolex was forced to tell the truth and even to formally apologize to Harwood (again found on the internet):

Rolex apology

And they corrected their tale: “First Perrelet, then Harwood, and then Super-Rolex” (also found on the internet). On this leaflet, John Harwood looks quite content with himself and his victory in this argument.

Rolex corrected their tale

Harwood: A Practically Unknown Inventor

John Harwood was born in England, in the city of Bolton, Lancashire, in 1883.

We know undeservedly little about him. There are only two photos of him found on the internet. Here is one:

John Harwood portrait

He was clearly a gifted inventor. His inventions include an impact screwdriver and a watch winding device, now known to everyone as an “automatic watch winder”.

John Harwood died in 1964 at the age of 81 in a car accident.

References

  1. The Origins Of Self-Winding Watches 1773 – 1779 by Richard Watkins. Can be downloaded here. The author considers himself a very authoritative researcher in this field. Just have a look at his surprisingly aggressive review of a book written by another prominent author, Jean-Claude Sabrier.
  2. John Harwood’s patent for a self-winding wristwatch, submitted in the United States in 1926. The file was created using the OCR process and thus contains a lot of mistakes. What’s interesting to note is that this document indicates that John Harwood initially patented his invention in England on the 7th of July, 1923.
  3. Jacques Farret’s patent for a self-winding wristwatch, again the US version (similar file quality). Initial patent was filed in France on the 19th of July, 1930.
  4. FORTIS brand history book, celebrating 100 years of the brand. Pages 12-23 are of particular interest.
  5. History of the creation of FORTIS Harwood, retrieved from web archive.
  6. DuBois et fils history, official company website. Scroll down to 1931.
  7. Rolex history, official company website. Again, scroll down to 1931.
Caretaker avatar
Mikhail Kornaukhov

Mikhail, 51, has been collecting watches for more than 4 years. He is particularly interested in iconic timepieces involved in the development of the watch industry.

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